Stand by a bookcase and shut your eyes. Run your hand along the spines of the books, concentrating on the question you want an answer to. You may feel a tug, a certain book demanding attention; you may feel that this is mere frivolity, that any selection will be random. Either way, your fingers will linger on a book. The important thing at this stage is to know, with absolute conviction, that the book contains your answer. Remove it from the shelf and, with your eyes still closed, flick through it, thinking only of the question. Run your finger down a page and stop. Open your eyes and read what’s written. I had just finished reading Barry McCrea’s first novel and – still slightly dazed and susceptible – asked: ‘What does The First Verse mean?’ I flipped through the pages of the first book that presented itself and found my finger pointing at the following passage:
‘No, no, master will never do that,’ here murmured the servant to himself, ‘proud Atufal must first ask master’s pardon. The slave there carries the padlock, but master here carries the key.’
His attention thus directed, Captain Delano now noticed for the first time that, suspended by a slender silken cord, from Don Benito’s neck, hung a key. At once, from the servant’s muttered syllables, divining the key’s purpose, he smiled and said: ‘So, Don Benito – padlock and key – significant symbols, truly.’
That’ll learn me. So a book, I now know, doesn’t require an external key for its message to be unlocked: all it asks is that you submit yourself to it. The passage is from Melville’s Benito Cereno, but the context is immaterial: this method of divination is a more democratic version of the sortes Virgilianae, a kind of literary lottery in which the book consulted was the Aeneid; tradition demanded that the specific passage chanced on be read as a sybilline utterance. The method was said by Gibbon to have been adapted by the early Christians, who used random verses from the Bible to determine their course of action: a heretical appropriation of the sacred book that was, so they say, banned at the Council of Orléans in 511. The sortes are also the basis of the obsession that drives some of the characters in The First Verse, causing them to lose both friends and sleep, and forget what month it is, and suffer the embarrassment of having their eyes turn green.
As the story begins, McCrea’s 19-year-old protagonist, Niall Lenihan – ‘So few letters, all repeated and rearranged’ – has just taken up a scholarship in English and French at Trinity College Dublin. It’s a familiar world he enters: on his first night, he is looked up by the other Beckett scholar, a friendly girl from Belfast called Fionnula, and rapidly extracts his duvet from his rucksack to make his room more presentable. He negotiates the transition from middle-class suburban Sandycove son to college man about town with enviable if self-conscious ease, helped along by his until now largely theoretical knowledge of Dublin’s haunts and late-night hang-outs: the Rí-Rá, the Break for the Border, O’Neill’s on Suffolk Street. He sinks pints of Guinness with classmates from all corners of the country, ‘the four dark provinces beyond Dublin’: a nunnish girl from Wexford, a nervous boy from Monaghan or thereabouts. Everyone is betrayed by their accents, and everyone takes their bearings from those around them, meeting for the first time people of all kinds, nattering warm banalities and gossiping about their peers. Niall is glad to find a fellow Southsider, a born storyteller called Andrea who gives nights out a glamorised glow that will increase in her retelling. There are student parties, where the trick is to conceal your six-pack of beer among the lettuce and carrots at the bottom of the fridge to protect it from scavengers; overheard in the streets is the alien conversation of working-class Dubliners, and the joshing of ex-rugby-playing pinstriped Celtic Tiger bankers. There are signs and portents of a darker alternative – in a bar, a crazed-seeming postgrad with green-tinged eyes called Sarah invites him to flick through the paperback she’s holding – but he puts them mostly out of his mind, since time passes cheerfully enough.
There is a more straightforwardly different world, though. Niall has arrived at Trinity still simmeringly obsessed with Ian, a schoolmate who may, he worries, have finally cottoned on to the nature of his jealousy. One day he catches the eye of a man who looks a little like Ian, a man he has seen before. He follows him, struggling to keep up through the traffic, as the man, with never a glimpse behind him, weaves across town and across the forbidden threshold of the George, Dublin’s original gay pub. Niall is immediately involved in a heightened world of male scents and gelled hair and dry ice, the shock of musky aftershave and muscled, tattoo-covered arms. ‘The whole place was immense and strange, the laughter and jabbering of people beneath the music was a barbaric and complicated language, the aggressive chatter of a foreign market where the stallholders will cheat you and slim dark-eyed men in the crowd will steal the money from your pocket.’ He is swept away. And so begins a giddy new life, with a different man every night taken back to his room in Botany Bay. He is living two lives – not having come out to any of his friends, old or new – with days of classes and gossip and nights of disco smoke and beery kissing.
The real trick of narration is to engineer a double point of view. Fiction is tale-telling, and demands a certain impressionability, but no one will credit the story of the wide-eyed ingenu if there isn’t some standard of scepticism to measure it against. There’s a reason so much 19th-century fiction is narrated by a man at the end of his life thinking back on a story that happened many years ago to his younger and more susceptible self. Just look at Melville’s beginnings (‘In Liverpool, now half a century ago’; ‘I am a rather elderly man’), designed to indicate telegraphically that the story which is about to be revealed is strange enough to have lasted, to have been burned into the memory even of someone who has seen it all. McCrea sustains his double vision with an uncanny and unmodern ability. From the start, Niall’s narration has a world-weary sureness – ‘An unremarkable swottishness and a cheap, almost corrupt knack for exams had got me easily through secondary school at the Jesuit Gonzaga College, and covered me with the scalps and headdresses of local competitions’ – that belies his age and seems to prove the weight of experience, to demonstrate that vast happenings have been collapsed into a brief year. The tone works like a promise: recalling as it does a whole body of gothic literature, it signals surprises around every corner; ghosts are guaranteed. The character-filled chatter of the Dublin streets – a zeitgeisty modernity that McCrea so credibly describes – comes to seem only an accidental backdrop to the real business at hand, as he leads you surely towards the revelation of secrets.
But Niall is himself being led. Something about what he has seen of the sortes – some pattern of coincidence in the words chanced on, including the strange repetition of verses from ‘Oranges and Lemons’ – has taken hold of his imagination. He catches glimpses of Sarah and her friend John in the corners of bars, heads bent down low over their books and their notes. His curiosity is only increased by their brusque treatment of him, and he begins consulting his own oracles in order to find out what they are up to. ‘Where are Sarah and John?’ he asks. A book replies, ‘In Rome, the position in the bank was not to last long,’ and he is soon running to a bar on Dame Street called the Bank. A second double life begins, in a hellish parody of the first, as he chases fleeting figures down dark alleyways, infiltrating himself against their will into their circle. With his initiation comes a creeping addiction, a feverish attachment to the books, so consuming that the daytime world becomes hopelessly attenuated. Everything he sees and hears – the headlines on a news-stand, a woman blathering into her mobile – dissolves into potential meaning, floating free from its context. He abandons his room in college and runs from friends or turns on them, ignoring his beeping phone; he leaves a man who might have become a boyfriend standing expectant in the rain by the Capel Street Bridge. As one life falls apart, a quest narrative opens up, filled with gargoyles and temptresses and spirit guides. There are visitations and visions; there is an Ophelia-like near drowning and a watery resurrection. The narrative, at this late stage, exerts a double pull: on the one hand, you want Niall to rescue himself from his collapse and recover his life; on the other, you want him to pursue his quest to its end.
It is at this point that McCrea does something very clever. If this were a book that meant to deceive – like, say, The Da Vinci Code – the sortes would reveal some esoteric secret that had been kept from the world by malign authorities: Dan Brown’s great crime is to supply opiates to the masses in the form of pretended subversive truths. And if McCrea had written an adventure story – like, say, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which it nearly resembles – his book would have more murders in it. But when the sessions of the Dublin cell of Pour Mieux Vivre begin in earnest, there are no false disclosures. What Sarah and John and Niall get up to in their cabalistic encounters – as they discuss ‘synchronicities’ and how to ‘get to the next level’ – is something much simpler. Their ritual involves them simultaneously reading out passages from arbitrarily chosen books, repeating them over and over until the words blend into one another and gather an incantatory rhythm, divorced from any possible function. When, early on, Niall confronts Sarah at a party and asks where she is from, she says: ‘Where am I from. Do I come here often. Is that Chanel Number Five you’re wearing.’ The Dublin of snares he has run from is a place in which words are conventions applied to fill a space, mere phasis, used for communication not for meaning. At one level, the games he plays – which unlock no mysteries – are symbolic of nothing more than obsession itself, involving a slavish addiction complicated by the lures of padlocks and keys. But at the same time they say something valuable about what words can do when you really listen to them.
McCrea knows what words can do. I can’t imagine many other novelists successfully infiltrating into a single paragraph the words ‘literally’, ‘litorally’ and ‘laterally’:
Amphibious green trains run along its foamed edge, sliding back and forth between the heart of the Hibernian metropolis and the deep south, through the litorally bounded civilisations of Glenageary, Blackrock and Kilkenney, through Dalkey, Seapoint and Bray. The Stillorgan dual carriageway cuts across the middle of this land, a spine laterally transversing the wild darkness of Foxrock and Leopardstown, stretching through countless lonely valleys and plains all the way out to the western edges, the foothills, the ends of the earth, the literally fantastic tracts in Three-Rock’s solemn shadow.
This – grounded as it is in real geography and the real boundaries of an imagined childhood – stays the near side of hypnagogic smoke and mirrors, and its avoidance of stale usage (‘literally fantastic tracts’) is not only careful but ingenious. The real mystery here is why McCrea, who is Irish but teaches comparative literature at Yale, doesn’t seem to have been able to find a publisher in Britain or Ireland. Maybe one of them could reach for the bookshelf.